A perk of living in a university community is our access to great performers, thinkers and speakers. If we can make time to squeeze in a few events, we are smart to do so. Auburn’s Department of Philosophy reached out recently to invite the Jewish community to a lecture by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine from Vanderbilt University. I’m Jewish, but I’m not a true scholar of Judaism, nor one of Christianity. She is, though, and of both. Her research and title — Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies — piqued my interest. I wanted to learn more.
I attended her morning session for clergy and lay leaders. Her work is enlightening. Before I continue, let me say that I’m thrilled that so many local clergy members from a spectrum of Christian denominations attended to learn about Jesus’s Jewish context, engaged with her work, and asked excellent questions.
Previously, I hadn’t given much thought to how some individuals or traditions had set Jesus apart as anti–Jewish establishment when, in reality, Jesus taught from a Jewish perspective and to fellow Jews. He did so in the custom of tochechah, or rebuke (as of a neighbor), as commanded in Leviticus 19:17. Constructing or augmenting a contrast between Jesus and the Judaism of the day — diverse in its approaches and practices — mischaracterizes both Judaism and Jesus’s teaching. Christians benefit from the study of the New Testament through a Jewish lens because understanding that Jesus was so often speaking to fellow Jews, in a distinctly Jewish tradition, leads to, as Dr. Levine describes, better theology. The misunderstanding of Jesus’ and his followers’ Jewish roots also, even if unintentionally, can sow early seeds for anti-Semitism.
What’s more, in one of Dr. Levine’s lectures available online, she comments that “it is necessary for Jews both to know what the New Testament says and how it has been interpreted over time.” She challenges Jews, too, to dispel misconceptions and more fully understand context. Dr. Levine argues that, for Jews, the study of the New Testament fills in the textual gaps about first century Judaism, such as what we miss in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) about women, like their right to manage their finances. She also notes that Jesus’ teachings that intensify Torah (asking more than the original) is a rabbinic tradition called “building a fence about the Torah,” protecting Torah’s commandments. At my lovely Christian friend Sandy’s suggestion, I bought the second edition of Drs. Levine and Brettler’s edited collection The Jewish Annotated New Testament. So begins a new path on my learning journey.
With the explosion of hateful speech and acts, we urgently must nurture interreligious understanding and peace. Part of the work is through studying history and context. As I write this article on January 27, we’re marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, designated in 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I hope we will all take time to learn about our histories and interconnectedness with open, inquisitive spirits. Never again, for anyone.
Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English. She is also a cat herder — a.k.a. parent of two, spouse, sometime musician, dog wrangler and juggler of what life tosses her way.